Diplomats are often called upon to make sacrifices for their country, such as serving at dangerous posts, working long hours and on weekends, and enduring mind-numbingly dull receptions. Eileen Malloy, who served as Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic from 1994-97, can add one more item to that list. She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning November 2008.
You can also read about her experiences in arms control in Siberia and her meeting with astronaut Sally Ride. You can also read the transcript from the panel discussion on women in the Foreign Service, which she moderated. Go here to read about the challenges faced when the U.S. first opened its embassy in Bishkek in 1992.
“I had visions of the local newspaper printing a picture of Madam Ambassador au natural”
MALLOY: Towards the end of my time, in the spring of 1997, my daughter and I received an invitation from Mrs. Akayeva (the President’s wife, seen in photo above) and her youngest son to visit Jalalabad, one of the provinces in the southern half of the country. She knew I would be leaving Kyrgyzstan that summer and she really wanted to show this area to me. It was the province that I had visited the least.
The Kyrgyz knew me pretty well by then so they knew I was a photographer and they knew that I liked water. I agreed to accept this invitation, thinking that we were going on a hiking trip.
Mrs Akayeva and I along with our children and a huge entourage that included the Head of the Presidential Administration and the Vice Prime Minister for Agriculture, flew to the airport in Jalalabad where we got in cars and drove off to an old Soviet resort. Once there we immediately were mounted on horses. That was when I realized that this was a three- or four-day horseback ride through some of the steepest mountains you have ever seen.
Basically the first day the horses had to walk uphill by wading up a mountain stream; it was the only way for the horses to get enough purchase to be able to climb upwards. I had not been on a horse in years, number one.
Number two, the Kyrgyz saddles are basically wood with a carpet over them, extremely uncomfortable, and also I had this young child who, while she had been taking horseback riding lessons, would be trekking over the mountains with no safety gear or equipment. There was no medical care within thousands of miles. So this was a big gulp but you just had to go with it and do it.
We had a bonding experience. We would stop for the night, have barbeque for dinner and sleep in the outdoors in yurtas.
The Head of the Presidential Administration came from this area, his family hosted us one night in their yurtas. My daughter loved it. She and the Akayev’s son would race their horses and go off to all different places. She is now 20 years old but still talks about that trip. So from that perspective, it was great.
We had a lot of quality time together during which I had some good discussions with Mrs. Akayeva. She was hugely important in the Kyrgyz government on any issue having to do with children, culture, education, etc.
I had been having conversations with her for over a year on the issue of adoption; I had visited orphanages and what struck me was that while so many children were residing there, adoption by foreigners was not legal. She explained why adoption by foreigners just would not work for them in a Muslim society; even if the child had only one distant relation still in Kyrgyzstan, it was preferable for the child to remain in an orphanage and have the experience of being part of a Kyrgyz family.
She also clarified that a lot of the children in orphanages were not actually orphans but rather children whose parents were in jail. Kyrgyzstan had more and more people involved in the drug trade and more and more drugs coming up from Afghanistan. While the parents were serving time in prison, the children lived in orphanages but they were not available for adoption.
But we did have some good talks about the ethnic Russian children living in orphanages and whether it would be culturally acceptable at some point for foreigners, including Russians from Russia, to adopt these children.
We were never able to complete that issue before I left at the end of my tour but this horseback trek was a really good opportunity to have the kind of slow, careful discussion needed to push it ahead a bit….
By the second day of our horseback trek — this was hot weather and hard riding and there are no bathroom facilities in a yurta — being a typical American if I did not get to take a shower each day I would get grumpy. I was really looking for some place to have a wash. We arrived at an old Soviet-era hostel on the top of a mountain where we would be spending the night. The hostel had no bath facilities.
The Head of the Presidential Administration indicated that we would be leaving the horses at the hostel and walking down to a nearby lake. I said, ‘that’s great.’ We got in a little boat and were dropped at the far edge of this beautiful, almost glacier type lake.
It was called Sary-Chelek Lake and it was formed about 800 years ago when a huge landslide blocked up a waterway. The lake is quite high up in the mountains – at an altitude of 6,300 feet.
The head of the Presidential Administration took the two children off for a walk up the hills. They were about half a mile off in the distance when Mrs. Akayeva announced that it was time for us to swim.
At this point the soldiers who guard her had taken the boat and left us three ladies – Mrs. Akayeva, a friend of hers, and me – on our own.
Well, of course I did not have a swimsuit with me but these ladies knew that they were going to go swimming so they were in bathrobes. They just took their bathrobes off and they swam in their underwear, having brought along an extra pair to wear on the boat ride home. If I swam in my underwear I would have nothing dry to put on but I really wanted to go swimming at this point.
So I said to them we are all alone, would you mind if I just went swimming au natural? And they said no, not at all, but of course. They got in the water, I got in the water, it was freezing cold. If you think of a glacier lake in June after about 10 seconds it gets so cold that you want to get out.
So I announced that I was getting out but Mrs. Akayeva said, “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I asked why not?
She pointed out that the boatload full of guards was returning. And I turned around and the boat full of soldiers was just pulling up to the shore to talk to her and there I was in the water, stark naked. I had visions of the local newspaper printing a picture of Madam Ambassador au natural but fortunately for me, Mrs. Akayeva waved the boat away and I do not think that the guards realized what was happening.
Q: Open diplomacy, openly arrived at.
MALLOY: Yes. While she was sending them away my lips were turning blue and my feet went numb. Then I quickly got out of the water, got myself dressed.
They graciously came out and put on their robes and changed under their robes. They all knew how to do this but had they said a word to me beforehand maybe I could have been prepared as well.
And at that point I realized that the two children and the minister are sitting on a hill about a half a mile from us, watching the whole thing.
It turned out Mrs. Akayeva practiced, I never got the name, but there is a school of thought or ritual in which they bathe outdoors every morning in extremely cold water — even in the winter — and then air dry. They do not believe in toweling off, and she believed that this regime was really good for your health and wanted to introduce me to this method. And she had tried on a previous visit.
She wanted me to meet her and her lady-in-waiting at midnight to go for a swim in Lake Issyk-Kul — also skinny dipping but I ended up demurring on that because I knew she would have lifeguards with her but this time I got caught.